The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the public sector union that has helped keep my daughters out of classrooms for most of the 2020–21 school year, issued its long-awaited endorsement for New York mayor on Monday: NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.
"Educational policy is crucial, but we need a mayor who understands how the city works," the UFT explained in a tweet. To which a beleaguered resident of Gotham might counter: Or maybe we need a mayor who understands that the city doesn't.
The New York Times' news pages described the endorsement as "a much-needed boost" to Stringer's campaign, which seems oddly inflationary given the UFT's desultory record in picking Democratic primary winners. Odder still is the open hostility that many in the media are directing toward the front-runner in this race, who also happens to be the only candidate bluntly criticizing the teachers union for its role in shuttering schools: former 2020 presidential aspirant Andrew Yang.
"Yang's prominence, The New Republic's Alex Pareene confessed last week, "depresses me." Why? Because it's embarrassing for a polity that takes nuts-and-bolts governance so seriously to swoon over a celebrity candidate.
"As mayor, Yang would have to figure out how to get lead paint and mold out of the city's public housing system, how to design safer streets, how to make the buses run more efficiently, how to collect garbage, how to assign children to public schools and operate them fairly, how to manage the paramilitary known as the NYPD, and what to do with the atrocity known as Rikers Island," Pareene wrote wearily. "And, for all the talk of his ideas, he has not shown that he has thought very much about any of those parts of the job."
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, too, decried Yang's lack of relevant experience.
"We've got, like, the most important mayor's race in New York City probably in the last 50 years, maybe 100 years, I don't know….[And] I mean, you and I could do a better job running New York City than Andrew Yang," the Morning Joe host told a nodding Donny Deutsch Monday. "You want that mayor to be competent, you want them to know what they're actually doing….It's one thing running for president and putting some quirky ideas out there and getting some media attention, but man, when you're running New York City, again, I'm talking competence."
I can think of other c-words when clanging along the city's busted streets, waiting for trains that never come because we're still wiping down surfaces to prevent COVID, or trying to sort through the latest turf squabble between the Democratic mayor and the Democratic governor over a pandemic that hit the five boroughs harder than anywhere else in the United States. Crime is up, population is down, school buildings are still half-closed, subways are increasingly gross (wipedowns notwithstanding), tourism is gutted, Midtown is deserted, and public-facing businesses remain subject to arbitrary restrictions. And you're talking competence?
Seeing the political class attempt to cope with what Slate this week called "the bewildering rise of Andrew Yang" is a storyline familiar enough that even politicians and journalists hear the echoes.
"We are creating a Donald Trump with Andrew Yang," warned fellow mayoral candidate Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, earlier this month. "That's what the media did with Donald Trump. The same thing you complain about—how did he get elected?—was because you covered Donald Trump as though he was doing celebrity show and not running for the presidency. The media is doing the same thing right now."
Candidate Maya Wiley, the former MSNBC analysts who is clumped with Adams and Stringer in the second tier of candidates behind Yang, is also playing the Trump card. "Our city deserves a serious leader," Wiley spokesperson Julia Savel said earlier this month, "not a mini-Trump who thinks our city is a fun play thing in between podcasts."
You'd think by now we'd have enough practice with outsider populists upending political expectations, but the message has not yet sunk in. A polity alienated, desperate, and/or bored enough with the status quo will flock to the unpolished celebrity not despite his inability to sound and act like the political establishment, but because of it. Every departure from the normal script reinforces the notion that at least he's not one of them, especially after his competitors and the press have chewed on it.
Such a phenomenon, especially after the Trump experience, should spur journalistic examination of the political-class failure that made such a candidacy attractive in the first place. After all, Stringer, Adams, and Wiley, like the two-term mayor they aim to succeed, are each creatures of the New York political establishment who understand how the city works. And yet voters don't seem to value that experience. Sounds like an interesting topic for exploration!
Instead, you have a series of comically exasperated headlines—"Andrew Yang leads new NYC mayoral poll — despite string of gaffes," "Andrew Yang leads the New York mayoral race despite missteps," "Yang stays atop New York mayoral field – through early stumbles and rookie mistakes"—mixed with pity-inducing attempts at gotcha journalism. How dare he pose for pictures with the Trump-supporting Naked Cowboy!
As with Trump, the sheer volume and tenor of the media attacks against Yang can serve to make him more sympathetic, or at least cause one to root for the commentators' continued disappointment.
"Fundamentally," the Brooklyn freelancer Alex Yablon wrote for NBC's website, "Yang champions the same business-class neoliberalism that has reigned since the 1975 fiscal crisis. This is frustrating given that New Yorkers actually have a chance to push our political, social and economic order into the 21st century."
Yang is a piñata for people who use phrases like "bro culture," hate Bitcoin because of climate change, and believe that testing is a tool to segregate schools. In other words, he definitely will not win the Brooklyn Twitter primary.
But he may well be the next mayor of New York. If he does, that would be a splendid opportunity for journalists to examine the gap between their tastes in political manners and voters' priorities in addressing problems. Judging by the last half-decade's trajectory in media self-conception, it will likely be a road not taken.